From Columbia Magazine:
The young entrepreneur stood in front of the panel of judges, fiddled nervously with a PowerPoint presentation, and prepared to pitch his idea: a virtual-reality game that would help refugees learn their new local language.
The scene, which took place in a gleaming, glass-walled new co-working space, could have been lifted from any venture competition in Silicon Valley. But there was a twist: the entrepreneur was himself a refugee. And he was pitching not in California, but in Erbil, Iraq, at a summer boot camp organized by Five One Labs, the first startup incubator for conflict-affected populations in the Middle East.
“There are over a million Iraqi IDPs (internally displaced persons) in Kurdistan, and 250,000 Syrian refugees. So there’s definitely need,” says cofounder and executive director Alice Bosley ’17SIPA. “Entrepreneurship training helps address some of the most pressing problems in the community, particularly employment and education.”
In addition to weekend boot camps in the spring and summer, the organization’s main program is a three-month-long incubator offered in the fall. Participants receive free office space, training in areas like financial planning and marketing, mentorship from experienced entrepreneurs in the Middle East and the US, and a chance to compete for $15,000 in seed money.
Some businesses in the incubator’s inaugural cohort, like the one making the virtual-reality language game, focus specifically on needs that people see in the refugee community. Others, like an online pharmacy service, are already common in Western nations but new to Iraq. And still others are, as Bosley puts it, universal needs.
“We have three young men who want to build a french-fry business,” she says. “And it makes sense. Iraq actually has an abundance of potatoes.”
Bosley came up with the idea for Five One Labs with classmate Patricia Letayf ’17SIPA. Both women have backgrounds in the Middle East — Bosley grew up mostly in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Letayf was raised in America but has family in Syria and Lebanon. Before coming to Columbia, Letayf was a political analyst specializing in the region and Bosley worked in the innovation office of the American University of Iraq, advising students who were hoping to start their own businesses.